All students applying to college should know about FAFSA.

Also known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, everyone—rich, poor, or somewhere in between—should plan to fill out a FAFSA application as part of applying to college.

“One of the largest barriers to a higher education is funding,” says Jeff Boyle, a director of financial aid and veterans affairs at Spartanburg Community College (SCC).

FAFSA is the foundation for all financial aid, and allows students to be considered for Federal Pell grants, state grants, student loans, scholarships and work-study programs. These funds can help pay for college tuition, as well as books and some fees.

“New students, and especially their parents, are under the misconception that they are not eligible for financial aid because of the family’s income or because they didn’t have high grades,” says Boyle. “Many times this can be a wrong assumption and a reason why a lot of eligible students don’t apply.”

Fill out that FAFSA

Boyle calls the FAFSA application an overwhelming experience for most people. That’s because the form is a 10-page booklet with specific, step-by-step instructions. Parents need their current tax returns for a dependent student, and independent students must have tax returns for themselves and their spouse.

While the whole process can turn stomachs into knots, students and parents can visit any SCC campus for one-on-one help. Be sure to complete your family’s tax forms before filling out the FAFSA, so you will have your best financial information at hand.

Awards vary by college

Students are awarded financial aid once they’re admitted into a college or university. If they are admitted to several, each school will receive the FAFSA report, which the college uses to determine a broad range of financial aid options that includes grants, loans, scholarships and work study. So while FAFSA will inform you if you’re eligible for federal aid, only the colleges you have applied to can provide you with information on all of the aid that you can receive.

– Kathy Hulik

What’s the Difference?

A glossary of financial aid terms:

GRANTS are gifts that do not need to be paid back. Grant decisions are based on family income, household size, reported assets, and the number of children in college. The most common is the Federal Pell Grant that pays for tuition, fees and books, and any unused money gets paid to the student.

LOANS must be paid back to the lender with interest. Loans mean debt, and students must understand that, and request only what they need, not the higher amounts that they may be offered.

Boyle emphasizes that students should understand that they have power and control over the borrowing process and should get complete details about their responsibility, repayment and interest from their financial aid officer.

SCHOLARSHIPS are gifts that do not require repayment. According to Boyle, they are the most underused of the financial aid programs, because their criteria varies. They can be based on academics, hometowns, gender and ethnicity, or specific programs. When searching for scholarships, be sure to look for ones that are renewable.

WORK STUDY is a federal program in which colleges receive a certain amount of money to pay out in student salaries. Students are limited to 20 to 25 hours of work per week, and have the opportunity to learn about their school from the inside. They also get valuable work experience to add to their resume and life experience for budgeting their salary.

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